Coming Soon to Massachusetts: Adaptation to Climate Change

The abandonment of any discussion of climate change in Washington has not been followed in Massachusetts. Yesterday, Rick Sullivan, the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, released the Massachusetts Climate Change Adaptation Report, providing the fruits of a lengthy process in Massachusetts to look at the impacts of climate change on five areas: Natural Resources and Habitat; Key Infrastructure; Human Health and Welfare; Local Economy and Government; and Coastal Zone and Oceans.

Certainly, the summary of potential impacts in Massachusetts is not a pretty picture – speaking metaphorically, anyway; many of the pictures in the report actually are pretty cool. For those who want a quick idea, take a look at the 100-year flood in downtown Boston under the high emissions scenario, on page 20 of the Report.

The trick is in choosing adaptation strategies that are cost-effective in the face of some substantial uncertainties. To give them credit, the Report’s authors are aware of the difficulties. We’ll see what happens when regulators start to consider concrete implementation of particular strategies that may limit development in certain areas or impose additional costs or requirements.

While the Report is too long to summarize here, a few highlights are worth noting:

  • An emphasis on combining mitigation and adaptation – look for more requirements to use low impact development approaches and to meet LEED building standards
  • A recommendation to increase buffer zones – do we take land out of development because it may be needed for flood control in 50 years?
  • Assessment of ways “to discourage and avoid siting in current and future vulnerable areas.” How do we decide what constitutes a vulnerable area and over what time horizon? Do we forbid construction? Require extensive insurance and rely on the market to control investment?
  • Consideration of the development of guidance “to fully implement” existing requirements that new buildings for “non-water-dependent uses” under Chapter 91 “be designed and constructed to … incorporate projected sea level rise during the design life of buildings.” Given existing requirements to devote the ground floor of such buildings to “facilities of public accommodation”, perhaps we could simply require owners to devote the first floor to salt water swimming pools!

Levity aside, this is serious stuff. The projections are certainly scary. That doesn’t make the regulatory decisions easy, however. Decisions regarding time horizons, discount rates, and how much to rely on regulations versus market incentives will be difficult, but getting them right will be critical to ensure that appropriate adaptations are made without adapting ourselves out of all economic growth.

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